West African leaders put military forces on “alert” to face Niger’s coup

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West African leaders have ordered the region’s defense chiefs to put their military forces on “standby” as they seek to ramp up pressure on Niger’s ruling military junta in the wake of last month’s coup.

The Economic Community of West African States said in a statement issued at the conclusion of an emergency summit in Nigeria on Thursday that it is keeping all options on the table for a peaceful solution, as it reiterated the regime’s demand for the release of ousted President Mohamed. Bazoum and restore constitutional order.

The reserve order keeps open the option of military intervention in Niger after the now-governing National Council for the Protection of the Fatherland ignored ECOWAS’ August 6 deadline to reinstate Bazoum’s pro-Western party. On Thursday, ECOWAS said its mediation efforts had been “repelled” by the ruling junta.

The regime had earlier unveiled a series of ministerial appointments as part of its efforts to consolidate its grip on power, as concerns were raised about Bazum’s welfare. Supporters of the ousted president, who said he was being held “hostage”, have complained that he has been denied fresh food, medicine or doctors since last week.

His Nigerian Party for Democracy and Socialism said the president was subsisting on basic food in “inhumane” and “cruel” conditions, without running water or electricity.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “concerned” about Bazoum’s health and well-being and called for the “immediate and unconditional release of the president and his reinstatement as head of state.”

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ECOWAS threatened to use military force if necessary to restore constitutional order, but internal opposition in Nigeria limited the scope of any potential intervention.

The military council, led by General Omar Chiani who formerly ran the Presidential Guard in Bazoum, rejected diplomatic efforts to seek a solution to the worsening crisis. It refused to allow an African Union and ECOWAS convoy to travel to Niamey this week after the country’s airspace was closed.

US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was also prevented from meeting Chiani when she had what she described as “difficult” talks in Niamey this week with other junta leaders.

But the junta has since met with Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, a former central bank governor of Nigeria and an influential Islamist leader. He met Chiane and briefed Nigerian President Bola Tinubu on his return to Abuja, providing an opportunity for continued diplomatic talks.

Since last month’s coup, Niger has been hit by ECOWAS sanctions that have caused food and basic commodity prices to skyrocket in the landlocked country of 25 million, which relies heavily on its neighbors for supplies. Nigeria, which supplies most of Niger’s electricity, has cut the electricity, resulting in prolonged blackouts.

On Wednesday, former rebel leader Risa Ag Bola announced the formation of an anti-coup organization dedicated to bringing back Bazoum, in the first sign of internal dissent against the coup leaders.

Niger’s government will be headed by newly appointed Prime Minister Ali Mohamane Lamine El Zein, Minister of Finance for eight years until 2010, who will also double as Minister of Finance.

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Colonel Amadou Abdel Rahman, who announced the coup on July 26 and was the junta’s spokesman, will head the Ministry of Youth and Sports. General Salifu Modi, former chief of army staff and number two on the military junta, is the defense minister. Major General Mohamed Tomba was appointed Minister of the Interior.

Bakary Yao Sangare, a career diplomat chosen by Bazoum in March as Niger’s permanent representative to the United Nations, will serve as foreign minister.

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